THERE IS A CLASSIC short story by Somerset Maugham called Footprints in the Jungle" that takes the form of a whodunit, but one of such ponderously obvious solution that the least sophisticated reader will have foreseen it by the second page. A Married Man, the new novel by Piers Paul Read (who was once winner of the Somerset Maugham Award), uses a similar strategy, though it is not the whodunit that he parodies by his ironic deflation, but the psychological thriller as practiced by Simenon or Highsmith.
The formula is familiar: a man of ordinary social dimensions is drawn inchmeal towards a pit of moral quicksand and then neatly pushed in. Usually the first step downward on this well-intentioned path is adultery, and so it is for Read's hero, John Strickland. A London barrister who has married into the squirearchy, Strickland develops male-menopausal symptoms after a reading of Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych." He takes his old socialist ideals out of the trunk in the attic, gives them an airing among his Tory friends, and determines to run for Parliament on the Labour ticket. He begins to run, at the same time, after women and soon meets Miss Wrong -- a spoiled-rotten heiress whom another character describes as "pure poison." Few readers will have failed to come to that conclusion independently, but (as the ballad has it) "a fool there was," and Strickland falls in love and is led by his nose to the most predictable of tradegies with the solemn inevitability of a bull mounting the ramp to the slaughterhouse.
This might seem to militate against a suspenseful narrative, but in fact A Married Man, after a slow start, becomes a proper page-turner. In part this may be due to the fascination inherent in watching a prophecy fulfilled, a la Macbeth, but surely most of the book's hold on our interest derives from its hypnotic believability. All of Read's considerable (though self-effacing) artistry is directed toward creating a wholly plausible fictional world.
His prose is cut from the plainest boiler plate. The blurbs on the back cover, assembled from reviews of his earlier novels, twice refer to him as "cool," twice as "polished," once as "smooth" and once as "facile." To all of which I say amen -- even, sometimes, to that "facile." For instance, one of the major characters is described on his first appearance as "a heavy, swarthy, handsome man with a curling, sneering mouth and a rich, caddish voice." Boo, hiss! To be fair, Read is rarely so careless, and most irregularities in the smooth, cool polish of the novel are in the direction of warmth, intelligence and wit, as in the superbly knowing catalogue of Strickland's electric appliances and in his many nuanced mappings of English class distinctions. Here is one of his best cameos, Strickland's brother-in-law Graham, who becomes in one brief chapter virtually an emblem for the England of the '70s:
"He spoke in the nasal sing-song accent of the city where he taught, and this together with his appearance and his opinions confirmed the worst fears of Alice Strickland's neighbours . . . about the corruption of youth in the state schools. At heart, however, Graham was not unconventional: he had been educated at the same grammar school in Newark as Sir Isaac Newton, had attended University College, London, and was as instinctively conservative as his father, who was a chemist; but he was also ambitious and he had realized early on that a man who was superficially modern but fundamentally old-fashioned would go far. He saw the denim and the Liverpool accent as advanced professional qualifications."
It is debatable whether the book succeeds in its main ambition -- to make a drama of adultery that is also the moral analogue of the Condition of England. At the tasks of detailing the actual maneuverings of a parliamentary candidate and of showing the climate of political discourse at a moment of high tension (the election of 1974), Read is very persuasive. But if one seeks to interpret his foreground drama in the contextual light of heated-up class conflict, the moral of his novel would seem to be that the very rich are squeezing the middle classes out of existence with the tacit cooperation of a working class that Read represents as comprised by and large of career criminals. I remain unconvinced.
Perhaps Read doesn't mean his tale to bear such a weight of interpretation (though it surely invites it). Taken at face falue, A Married Man is a satisfactory, civilized "good Read," with the additional merit that it is the ideal cautionary tale to give any spouse suspected of truant behavior.